When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, the country was thrust into chaos and uncertainty. Russian gunfire rained through the streets of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, and blockades were set up throughout the city.
Amid the disarray, a young woman gave birth to premature twins at 33 weeks. Despite her desperate attempts to find formula, Kyiv’s supplies were dwindling and the young mother worried the twins might not survive. The woman was a surrogate for an American family living in Chicago.
Unsure of how to help their children from an ocean away, they called one of their friends, Daniil Cherkasskiy, a Ukrainian expatriate living in the United States. Cherkasskiy made calls to his contacts in Kyiv, and they were able to procure formula for the babies.
Cherkasskiy told the story to one of his friends, another Ukrainian expat, Juliya Wicklund, an America Reads program manager with the University of Michigan’s Edward Ginsberg Center. With the situation in their home country growing increasingly dire by the day, they knew they needed to find a way to provide support.
“Aid was not really reaching people who needed immediate evacuations, and stores started to close. It was like mass panic at the start,” Wicklund said. “So, we kind of took matters into our own hands and found a way to work with volunteers in Ukraine who stepped up and wanted to help people in their communities.”
Working together with other expats scattered across the United States, they launched the Ukraine TrustChain, a nonprofit organization that evacuates people and provides medicine, shelters and generators.
As of May 25, the Ukraine TrustChain had helped more than 51,000 people evacuate from danger, according to the nonprofit’s website. Ukraine TrustChain teams have helped people move to safer locations within Ukraine and as well as migrate to other countries.
The organization supports six teams of volunteers in the country to provide sustained support repairing homes and schools. With a background in education, Wicklund said she finds the work supporting schools particularly rewarding.
“I love the community model and the idea of empowering communities,” Wicklund said. “We know communities grow stronger when they work from within, to lift each other up. So, that’s one aspect of the work that’s really powerful and motivating for me.”
Every week, Wicklund posts a Ukraine TrustChain newsletter on the organization’s website and sends it to those interested in staying up to date on progress. Wicklund provides a look into the work from each of the six teams. The updates have included stories about demining villages, providing child art therapy sessions and donating traditional Ukrainian “paski” cakes to children to help celebrate Orthodox Easter.
“The volunteers bring people hope and they bring people community and love,” Wicklund said. “When they come into these little rural villages that haven’t had any food or aid or shampoo or candles for months and months, people gather and they’re overjoyed that someone paid attention to them.”
The Ukraine TrustChain is run entirely by volunteers, and Wicklund said she is proud of the work they have been able to accomplish to help so many people survive throughout times of tragedy. The organization has provided thousands of seedlings to villages to help them grow their own food to sustain themselves and gain some independence.
“There are a lot of areas that don’t have work, but this volunteering keeps them going because we’re investing in a lot of local work,” Wicklund said. “The money is going back to the communities, which is really important because we know this war will stop and we know Ukraine will win, but we want Ukraine to win and then have a future.”
Wicklund grew up in Odesa, a city along the shore in southern Ukraine on the Black Sea. The city is known for its extravagant 18th- and 19th-century Baroque architecture. Wicklund said seeing some of the beautiful buildings she grew up with destroyed in the war has been devastating.
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“All of these cities are just so beautiful and magnificent in their own ways; it’s such a loss for the whole world,” Wicklund said. “It’s very painful for me, and at the start of the war, knowing that my city and home could be destroyed and much of that could never be reproduced.”
Wicklund has two young daughters, and she hopes to one day take them to Odesa to show them her home. She said she always dreamed of showing them Odesa’s theaters, museums, beaches and streets, and although they may not be able to visit any time soon, she knows the city will one day be safe and free.
With her work directly influencing thousands of lives, Wicklund hopes her daughters grow up knowing one person can make a difference. “I have taught my own children that you don’t have to be like some great famous person or whatever to do great things in the world,” Wicklund said.
“These are just regular everyday people who just care about other people a lot and are changing people’s lives every day. It’s a really powerful message of what love and care can do.”